WHEN I WAS NINE, I slept next to a coffin. It was a heavy pinewood box covered in traditional Chinese carvings. It belonged to Grandma. My father had it made for her seventy-third birthday and referred to it as ‘shou-mu’, which means something like ‘longevity’, but it was still the casket in which Grandma would be buried and I slept next to it every night. I could tell no one about it because there was superstition involved, and superstition was forbidden.
Grandma, who lived with my family in Xian, turned seventy-two in 1974 and became obsessed with a feeling of imminent death and was scared. She knew all the old sayings and foremost in her mind was this one: ‘When a person reaches the ages of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell will make his call.’ She couldn’t tell us the science behind it, but it had been passed down from generation to generation so it must have been true. And she wanted to be ready. Soon after the New Year, she began nagging Father about her funeral arrangements. She wanted to be buried in the traditional manner and would not be denied her last request. Grandma often vexed Father with her adherence to the old ways, but on most things he could bring her around. On this, however, she was firm and resisted all attempts to dissuade her.
You see, the practice of burial was banned in China after the Communist Party took over in 1949. The Party’s mandates for cremation made practical sense: burial wasted land that might otherwise be used for agriculture or building; it imposed a heavy financial burden on the peasants; and, in urban areas, where the living were crammed into smaller and smaller dingy apartments, there was simply no room for the dead. There were also ideological reasons: many funeral and wedding rituals were rife with Buddhist and Taoist spiritualism, which runs contrary to Communism’s embrace of atheism.
Father, who had worked hard to become a model worker and Party member, faced a dilemma. He knew a traditional burial for Grandma would land him in political trouble, erasing the honours he had painstakingly accrued within the Party.
Chairman Mao’s campaign to eliminate old traditions and customs, dubbed the Cultural Revolution, though winding down had yet to run its course. I remember going with my school class to Father’s company for the public denunciation of a cadre who gave his son a traditional wedding ceremony at his home village outside Xian. A local had tipped off the authorities that the cadre had hired a red sedan chair to carry the bride, an ‘old’ and therefore banned. The cadre’s denunciation was severe. Walls were plastered with big white posters painted with black characters declaring: Break away from old traditions and crack down on feudalistic and superstitious practices. There was no escaping the message: a poster covered an outside wall of the communal lavatory in our residential complex.
My sister and I had no qualms – Grandma was ‘a feudalistic old lady’. At school, I was a leader of a Communist youth group and at the annual singing contest performed a song called ‘Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals’. I found the thought of participating in a traditional funeral abhorrent. I recall being at the burial of an old lady in a rural village, where enforcement of rules against old traditions was lax. Relatives wore white headbands, white linen shirts and shoes covered with white cloth. They cried and wailed. The old lady’s grandson walked at the front of the procession carrying a bamboo pole with a long strip of white paper tied to it. I didn’t understand what was written on the paper, but Father told me the characters were about hopes for a peaceful trip to the other world and a successful reincarnation. I cringed at the prospect of someday bearing that pole. My classmates would think I was a cheater, singing Communist songs at school but practising ugly old rituals at home. Worse, they would laugh at me if I had to wear a weird white outfit.
At first, Father ignored Grandma’s pleas. He had always respected her wishes and never argued with her in front of us. But this was different. At dinner, he would sometimes tell Grandma about the famous Communist leaders who had embraced cremation, sometimes how people had been expelled from the Party for arranging traditional funerals and weddings, how their lives had been destroyed. After attending a co-worker’s funeral at Sanzhao Crematorium he told her, ‘It wasn’t bad.’
Sanzhao Crematorium is in the southern part of the city. Relatives, friends and co-workers gathered for a brief open-casket wake, but instead of the traditional sutra chanting and wailing, sad yet upbeat Communist-style mourning music was played over a loudspeaker. Government and company officials said a few words, family members stood up to thank the officials and talked briefly about the deceased, and the body slid into a gigantic furnace. The ashes were collected in a cinerary urn and placed in a big hall like a library. Cremation applied to everyone, from senior leaders to street cleaners, the only real difference being that important leaders were accorded a bigger memorial service and relatives didn’t have to wait in line for the furnace. During the festival of Qing Ming in April, which the Party had appropriated to remember all good Communists, relatives could retrieve the urn and do what they wanted with the ashes.
‘It wasn’t bad at all,’ Father said. ‘When we die, our mind is gone and we cease to exist. Why does it matter what happens to our bodies?’ Grandma shook her head; cremation horrified her. ‘I don’t want to be tortured in fire after I die,’ she said, grimacing at the word ‘tortured’. She had heard about how crematorium workers never completely emptied out the furnaces after each cremation. ‘When they scoop out handfuls of ash from inside the furnace, how will you know they are mine? You might be paying tribute to someone else’s mother at Qing Ming.’ She stood up and, to put an end to the conversation, began clearing the table.
Father, who wasn’t a particularly persuasive talker at the best of times, was lost for words. Mother was the straight talker in the house and she couldn’t bear to see her husband beaten so easily. ‘Where do you expect us to bury you?’ she said. ‘Have you seen any cemetery in the city?’
Grandma waved Mother off with annoyance. ‘Who said anything about being buried in Xian? I’m going back to the village in Henan,’ she said. ‘I want to be buried with my husband.’
Our eyes were wide with disbelief. This was new.
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